It’s a chilly evening. I’m here drinking some Knob Creek bourbon and clicking around the electronic universe. I read Bob Lefsetz’s blog “The Lefsetz Letter” and found a post about Walt Wilkins. Lefsetz writes about the state of the music industry; I read his blog from time to time to see what’s happening (or not happening) with how music is sold and promoted. Most of the posts are interesting and entertaining, but I look for his music recommendations because I’ve discovered that when he says he likes some song or musician (and usually he doesn’t just like something that he writes about, he LOVES it), I usually like it too. He likes gritty things, funny things, songs that move you, and songs that just get you all funked or mellowed out. Good music. So, tonight I bought Walt Wilkins’s Mustang Island and I’m drinking bourbon and thinking about my day. The title of this post is from the song, “If It Weren’t for You” which is my new bestest friend. Walt Wilkins’s voice is all up in the bourbon, too. But I digress…

Today I went with my Japanese teacher and her shodo (calligraphy) students (friends of mine) to see another student perform chado (tea ceremony). All these “do”s (the kanji means “road” or “way”: the way of writing, the way of tea) imply that we are never finished with learning, one just takes to the road and sees where it leads. This is a Zen concept, getting on the road, not expecting perfection yet striving to the utmost to pursue it. All Walt Whitman and open road and shit. No, Whitman isn’t Zen, that’s the bourbon talking.

We all meet up at Kamiooka station and walk over to the hall, which turns out to be a local war memorial hall. There’s a small museum on the first floor with World War II tschotkes, flags and uniforms and coins and such. I think of Carlos with longing; he would be fascinated and tell me all about each display. But the crowd itself is distracting and amazing: kimono porn. Half of the women are wearing kimono, and I have never seen so many amateurs (non-performers, non-saleswomen) in kimono in one place. The colors are subdued, which seems appropriate for the age of the crowd (mostly 50+-year-old ladies) and for autumn. My friends tell me the kimonos aren’t very fancy because one should respect the idea of wabi (simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature) when attending a tea ceremony. Of course, most of the kimono look simple, but I know they are very expensive; they are the expression of tasteful excess, or excessive taste. Anyway, it’s always cool to be the only gaijin in a crowd of Japanese women in kimonos.

Yayoi studies chado, so this is a recital of sorts for her. We file into the room with tatami mats and a corner for making tea. There are about 30 people in the room, including we six who have come specifically to see Yayoi do her thing. She looks marvelous in her kimono (I’ve only ever seen her in Western clothes), and she is excited to see us all. Her youthful excitement makes me love her. Her teacher is there, and Yayoi points me out to her (as if I don’t stand out like a giant cold sore on the face of a supermodel). The teacher looks overjoyed to see me, and I wonder, as I often do, if the Japanese are actually pleased to have a clumsy foreigner learning about their culture in the room, or if they are the best actors on the face of the earth (or something in between).

I have seen the tea ceremony performed several times before, but it is the “be in the moment” aspect, the individual person doing the actions in as mindful, and yet effortless, a manner as possible that makes it magical. Yayoi is lovely and makes it look both elegant and easy, which it is not. There’s no mystery: she makes a cup of tea. But it’s all about how she does it, how every action is perfect, unfrivolous, and expert. Actually, with 30 people in the room, she only makes a few cups of tea; the rest of us are served by assistants who make more in the back. Each cup of tea takes too freaking long for one person to wait on 30 people.

First, we are all given a little sweet bean paste flower, a little piece of art that gets our mouth full of excess sweetness; we will then crave the balance of the bitterness of the powdered green tea. Just receiving and eating the sweet involves some bowing and placing it on pieces of expensive washi paper folded in half and used as a dish. I follow my friends’ leads.

I watch Yayoi do the ceremony, and the cups of tea start coming out from the back. One beautiful assistant kneels in front of me and places the cup on the tatami. We bow to each other. I pick up the cup, hold it in my left hand and use my right to turn the cup 90 degrees two times (I am positioning the front of the cup towards me), and then drink it down in two gulps. It’s thick and slightly bitter, tastes of grassy herbs, and shoots my brain with vigorous caffeine. Then, I turn the cup again (now the “front” is facing away from me, although it’s pretty difficult to see what makes it the front or back). I place it back on the tatami and do the little “admiring the cup” motions. My friends are giving me approving murmurs from each side. I’m a good mimic.

Suddenly, Yayoi’s teacher calls out loudly to me from across the room: “DID YOU LIKE IT?” My little Zen moment ends abuptly as I realize every single person is watching me, the big barbarian, lick my chops.

Yes, yes, I liked it. Thanks.

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